Arsenal (1) 1 - 2 (1) Chelsea|
Millennium Stadium Cardiff, Sunday 25th February 2007
(Carling) League Cup Final
Hoyte Toure Senderos Traore (Eboue 65)
Walcott Diaby (Hleb 69) Cesc Denilson
Baptista Aliadiere (Adebayor 80)
An awesome game, in which a young Arsenal side (slightly
less experienced than I'd been expecting) not only failed to
let Chelsea's highly paid superstars roll over them as so many
had expected, but actually took the game to them and came pretty
damn close to winning it.
From the start, we attacked and rattled them. A midfield featuring
just one first-team regular, and a 19 year old at that, dominated
one featuring Lampard, Makalele, Ballack, and Essien. OK, so ours
included that 19 year old, Cesc Fabregas, who has become better than
any of their 4, but in fact he had a relatively poor game. Abou Diaby
was massive though, like a more attacking version of Patrick Vieira,
and if any one thing turned the game their way in the second half it was
the steel we lost when he had to go off injured. That and the introduction
of Arjen Robben.
For the first 20 minutes, Chelsea hardly got a touch. On 5, Walcott tried a one-two
with Diaby (a sign of things to come) but a defender got to the ball to
clear it. It fell to Fabregas who forced a save (not a hard one) from Cech.
Julio Baptista scuffed a shot after being put through by Denilson,
and it nearly turned into a decent cross for Jeremie Aliadiere, and then
Baptista made better contact with a shot that Cech had to tip round the post.
We took the lead in that opening spell of pressure, thanks to a superbly
crafted and finished first goal for the club from Theo Walcott after 12
minutes. Our corner had been cleared but Theo retrieved the ball on
the left, halfway between the box and the halfway line. He passed forward
and central to Diaby just outside the D and made for the box himself.
Diaby controlled the ball, kept hold of it under pressure with a couple of touches
and then, with the ball under his feet a bit, clipped a pass toward
Walcott whose run had taken him level with the defensive line on the edge of the
box. His first touch took him through that line and his second curled the
ball beautifully past Petr Cech and high inside the right post for 1-0.
Soon after, Baptista went down in the box under challenge from Diarra but
the ref waved play on. We kept up the pressure but then on 20 minutes
Chelsea finally had an attack. After Philippe Senderos had blocked Lampard's shot
the ball came to Ballack on their left. His diagonal ball to the far side
found Drogba in loads of space. Some say he looked offside but Senderos in
the middle had one of his legs positioned behind his body, and playing
Drogba on. The striker collected the ball and slotted it underneath the
advancing Manuel Almunia for 1-1.
Chelsea pressed for a second but we stood firm. Then a magnificent ball from
Denilson found Aliadiere but he tried to go it alone instead of looking for
support - Baptista and Diaby had found positions in the box, and Carvalho
got over to tackle the young Frenchman.
Arsenal started the second half strongly. Baptista' pass inside the full back put
Diaby clear and Cech made a brilliant save. Soon after, Cesc's low shot had Cech
beaten but went inches beyond the far post.
The came the moment that probably changed the game. John Terry stooped to try
to head a loose ball in our box as Diaby went to kick it clear. It looked like
Diaby's boot caught the England skipper under the chin, and instantly he
went down the players (Cesc seemed to be on the ball quickest) were calling for
assistance. Arsenal physio Gary Lewinm who'd been treating an Arsenal players
just beforehand and hadn't made his way all the way back to the
dugout yet, was first on the scene and was able to check that the unconscious
Terry's airways were clear. After a break of 6 minutes, he was stretchered off
and the game continued. Jon Obi Mikel came on, with Essien dropping back into
defence. As things turned out, though, Diaby had picked up a foot injury and
although he tried to play on it was with less effect, and with 20 minutes
to go he was replaced by Alexander Hleb. Now Hleb's a fine player, but a
very different kind of player, and the loss of Diaby's strength in midfield
gave Chelsea the chance to dominate it. They'd lost Terry too, of course. But
Terry, who 24 hours earlier had been a cert to miss the game through injury,
had unsurprisingly not been having his greatest game.
The incident seemed to shake the Arsenal players (Almunia, for example, said later that he'd
thought Terry might be dead), whereas perhaps it galvanised Chelsea.
The other thing which had changed things was the introduction of Robben from
the subs bench at half time. Armand Traore had been having a good game in
the first half, defending well despite Chelsea clearly (and understandably, he's
no Gael Clichy) having targeted his wing, and getting forward from time to time
as well. But they put Robben on Traore's side of the pitch and Robben had the better
of him. Before long (but not before Drogba had forced a save from Almunia), Wenger
brought Traore off, switched Justin Hoyte from right back to the left, and
brought on Emmanuel Eboue. Eboue had not been expected to make the game, having
only just returned to training from his injury on Friday. Robben stopped focussing
on the right wing and with him occupying Eboue's side of the pitch we had the
hilarious sight of Eboue complaining about Robben's diving. Eboue's spell of
absence does not appear to have sorted his head out at all. He's a better player
than Hoyte but there's a whole load of Arsenal fans these days thinking the
latter deserves a place more. Someone please have a word with Eboue.
Chelsea clearly had the upper hand now, thanks to the weakening of our midfield since the loss
of Diaby, the visible tiring of Aliadiere and Walcott reducing our chances of
worrying them on the break, and Robben pulling the strings from either wing.
With just less than 20 minutes to go (or 30,
including the masses of added time) a superb shot from Lampard crashed off the crossbar.
We nearly snuck a winner against the run of play when a rare decent corner from
Arsenal (Cesc I think) found Kolo Toure's head in space in the box, but he
couldn't direct the free header on goal.
With 10 minutes left Emmanuel Adebayor came on for Aliadiere who'd had a great
game (but had run out of legs). Almost straight away, Robben swung a cross
from their left, and Drogba muscled his way in front of Senderos to place a
fantastic glancing header past Almunia and in off the far post.
Shevchenko nearly made it 3-1 moments later when it was his turn to hit the bar.
Then, as the 7 minutes of injury time started, came the incident that everyone is,
sadly, talking about. It started with Mikel's foul on Toure, continued with the
pair of them in a bit of pushing and shoving, then everyone else got involved
quite unnecessarily and 3 players ended up sent off. Mikel, Toure, and Adebayor.
I'll write more on this later, but whatever Arsenal fans might like to think,
none of the 3 can complain. If there's anything to wonder at it's why certain
players were picked out for further punishment and not others. Lampard and
Cesc looked as bad offenders as anyone.
At the end of the day though, it was
all a bit of a fuss about nothing.
Chelsea left the stadium as winners, and deservedly so after they'd turned the game around so comprehensively in the second half, but I think Arsenal fans left feeling like winners too.
Our young players proved that the wins of this season, over Liverpool and Tottenham
in particular but also that FA Cup replay at Bolton, were no flukes. We really do
have some very exciting young players and once they've added a little strength,
endurance, and experience, they'll be up to facing anyone.
Some people have asked me since the game, how can I not be disappointed at this loss?
So we saw some promising young players, but at the end of the day they lost the final.
That can't be good, surely?
Well, I was there at Highbury in 1998 when the policy of playing the youngsters
in this competition started. When we played Vialli's Chelsea in the 4th round
with a team featuring Nelson Vivas, David Grondin, Alberto Mendez, Remi Garde,
Chris Wreh, Stephen Hughes and Fabian Caballero. We lost 5-0 and after the game
Arsene Wenger told us that this is the sort of thing you have to expect if you
field a second-string side.
I wonder if he remembers saying that, and how he feels about it now. Perhaps the
answer is that, after 9 years of working on the squad, there's no longer such a
thing as a second string Arsenal side.